Cultivating a Sense of Belonging and Community in Adult Education

August 31st, 2021 | Blogs


Many students talked about how isolating life in the United States can be and explained they would come to HERC even if they weren’t learning English for the social aspect of the program and connections they’ve made with other students. I hadn’t realized how important this was for our students before. Students affirmed many times throughout this semester that the sense of community in the program is an important factor in their consistent attendance and motivation.

~ Erin McNally, Program Coordinator, HERC

It is human nature that when we feel welcomed, respected, and develop a sense of belonging, we are more apt to return to the setting or endeavor than when those factors are not present. When immigrants and refugees sign up for classes or US-born adults decide to resume their education, they usually bring with them the expectations and connotations of whatever their previous educational experiences were like. For some adult learners the decision to go back to school can be anxiety provoking. They are stepping into unfamiliar territory, possibly without an expectation of belonging there. For that reason, cultivating a sense of belonging from the moment a prospective adult learner comes through the doors or calls is an important persistence strategy.

One of the strategies found to foster a sense of belonging in adult education settings is group learning (cohorts). In studying the stages of development of adult literacy learners at three sites, Robert Kegan and his fellow researchers found that adult learners benefited greatly from a group learning environment.

Although our sites presented three very different cohort designs, most participants valued highly their sense of belonging in the group and benefited substantially from their cohort experiences. . . . Our participants show us that cohort experiences seem to facilitate academic learning, increased feelings of belonging, broadened perspectives and, at least by our participants’ report, learner persistence.

(Drago-Severson, Helsing, Kegan, Popp et al. 2001).

Research from both higher education and K-12 also affirms the importance of building community and a sense of belonging in students. Vincent Tinto’s research with community college students provides strong evidence of the connection between persistence and community: “The research in this regard is quite clear, namely that the frequency and perceived worth of interaction with faculty, staff, and other students is one of the strongest predictors not only of student persistence but also of student learning” (Tinto 1994). In his view, effective retention consists of “an enduring commitment to student welfare, a broader commitment to the education, not mere retention, of students, and an emphasis upon the construction of supportive social and educational communities that actively involve students in learning.” In his studies with middle and high school students by Voelkl (1995, 1997) also found that “students’ feelings of belonging have been associated with levels of engagement, persistent effort in school work, expectations for success, and general school motivation and success.”

In the New England Adult Learner Persistence project, 11 out of the 18 action research program staff made specific observations about a greater sense of community in the group where the persistence strategies were implemented. At some sites, the strategies were intentionally aimed at community building, such as icebreakers during the first night of class at Nashua Adult Learning (NH):

These were fun, low-pressure activities designed to let students and teachers get to know each other and start to form trusting relationships. . . . The feeling of community was confirmed when students showed concern for their fellow students’ absences.

The SCALE program (MA) reported that their students “appreciated the opportunity to have a mentor who made them feel part of the class immediately.”

At the most basic level, building community calls for fostering connections among people. Activities and processes that help students and staff get to know one another build trust and camaraderie. This is especially important for new students. Numerous instances of this were documented by the participating programs. When group activities were not possible, taking time to introduce individual students and staff to each other made a positive impression on students.

Introductions and icebreakers set the stage for more ongoing community building. A sense of belonging can be cultivated in multiple ways that reinforce each other: activities that help staff understand and appreciate students’ barriers; providing supports to persistence; conveying caring; and showing appreciation and recognition. The data shows comments from many students appreciating the caring the program showed them. The HERC program (MA) Coordinator reported that, following their ‘Night to Dream’ event, “many students thanked the volunteers and HERC for taking such an interest in their goals and their lives beyond the English classroom.” The Quinsigamond Community College (MA) project team “saw and experienced a huge difference in the student behaviors, attitudes, relationships and sense of community. Most of the students opened up with us and discussed potential problems with us. . . . One of them, upon returning to his class after a leave, hugged the counselor and thanked her repeatedly; another student told the counselor that if it were not for her persistence in keeping in touch with him, he would have never come back and get his GED.”

The Central Falls Public Library (RI) and Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative both noticed a sense of community among students who availed themselves of the independent study options. These students bonded as a learning community even though most of the work was done individually. The very fact that the program made the effort to offer such a learning option was interpreted as a sign of caring by students.

In addition to direct comments by students about sense of community and caring staff, program staff noted specific indicators that they attributed to students’ sense of belonging and connection to the program. They reported an increase in the number of students who

  • let staff know the reasons for their absences;
  • communicated with staff about their need to stop out;
  • noticed and expressed concern for fellow classmates’ absences and sometimes called them;
  • showed interest in and support for classmates meeting their goals;
  • had lively conversations before class and during breaks;
  • stayed late after class to do school work together; and
  • showed appreciation for each other.

These results are difficult to quantify but their breadth and ubiquity demonstrate their significant impact.

Silja Kallenbach is Vice President at World Education and Andy Nash is Senior Technical Advisor. They designed and led the New England Adult Learner Persistence Project

About the New England Adult Learner Persistence Project

The underlying assumption of the New England Adult Learner Persistence Project was that persistence is the underpinning for academic progress that ultimately results in positive outcomes and an improved quality of life for adult learners. To that end, the project aimed to expand our collective knowledge base and practical resources from which all adult education programs can benefit. The New England Literacy Resource Center at World Education designed a process that drew on existing research, primarily by the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) and associated promising strategies, and engaged 18 adult education program as research partners in adapting and testing those strategies for their program contexts. Their interventions impacted 755 students and resulted in significant improvements in the rates of attendance and course completions.

The persistence strategies employed by the 18 programs produced both quantitative and qualitative outcomes. This report details the persistence strategies and their outcomes by the four categories that roughly correspond to students’ phases of participation in the program: 1) Intake and Orientation; 2) Instruction; 3) Counseling and Peer Support; or 4) Re-engagement.

This report also casts the persistence strategies and their outcomes into a bigger frame of needs that they fulfill in adults. Through our analysis of the programs’ data and other research, we have come to believe that ultimately, the persistence strategies derive their power from the fact that they meet these affective needs of adults:

  1. Sense of belonging and community
  2. Clarity of purpose
  3. Agency
  4. Competence
  5. Relevance
  6. Stability

Adult education providers can boost learner persistence by intentionally addressing these needs through all facets and phases of the program. They can do so by employing multiple strategies or, conversely, one strategy may address several needs

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